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From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone


But Are We Christians? by S. M. Hutchens

But Are We Christians?

Ecumenical Bedfellows of the Manhattan Declaration

According to the website of the British organization Ekklesia, which calls itself “the religion and society think-tank at the cutting edge of culture, spirituality, and politics,” St. Matthew’s in the City, an Anglican church in Auckland, commissioned a billboard depicting a glum-looking Joseph in bed with a disappointed Mary, over the legend, “Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow.” The agency that designed it said it was supposed “to challenge stereo-types about the way that Jesus was conceived, and get people talking about the Christmas story.” The church’s priest, clearly pleased with this clever bit of prig-baiting, identified the defecation as an effect of “progressive Christianity . . . distinctive in that not only does it articulate a clear view, [but it] is also interested in engaging those who differ.”

I was alerted to that little bijou while I was pondering the remarks of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox who would not sign the Manhattan Declaration because it presumes co-belligerency based on a common profession of the gospel. The protesting writers did not believe members of communions other than their own could be considered Christian, properly speaking, so cooperation based on fellowship in the gospel was impossible. While agreeing with their principles, I question their judgment of fact, finding occasion to remember what certain of their own authorities, all themselves downwind of “progressive Christianity,” have said about the ovinity of other folds’ sheep.

First, the Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer:

While acknowledging that this liberalism is rooted in the very origin of the Reformation, we would be making a serious mistake to see in it the true face of Protestantism. Wherever liberal Protestantism has gained the upper hand, “Protestantism is but an aggregate of different religious forms of free thought” [Monod]. . . . Protestantism, for its [devout and serious] members, means, not private judgment, but Biblical Christianity, incomplete or illogical as it may be. . . . Protestantism is Christian, not in its departure from the primitive and essential features of the Reformation, but in its adherence or return to them. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, pp. 2,15.)

Second, the Reformed thelogian J. Gresham Machen:

We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion, but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all. (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 35.)

Finally, the Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose:

We should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. St. Innocent’s attitude toward the Roman Catholics in California is a good example for us. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teachings. (Cited in Damascene Christensen, Not of this World: The Life and Teachings of Fr. Seraphim Rose, p. 758.)

So, Bouyer: Liberalism is the natural product of Protestantism, which has free thought at its root, but Protestantism conducted on the primitive principles of the Reformation is a Christian phenomenon. (He accurately anticipates the teaching of Lumen Gentium and Dominus Iesus: Protestant churches are, properly speaking, only ecclesial communities, so that one cannot say Protestants are, properly speaking, Christians. They can, however, be “honored with the name.”) So also Machen: Roman Catholicism is a perversion of Christianity, but in some sense still Christian, while religious liberalism is not Christian at all. Rose: Non-Orthodox believers possess a defective form of the faith, but it is nevertheless recognizable as Christian, so we may rightly call them Christians.

All allow that the others may hold to the Christian faith, even if it is by the merest sliver. At places like Touchstone, contemplation of “progressive Christianity” makes the sliver look a bit more like a plank (at least on most days), or maybe even a shooting platform, brings out the ecumenist in us, and moves us to sign things like the Manhattan Declaration.

— S. M. Hutchens, for the editors

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“But Are We Christians?” first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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